Is there or has there ever been tunnels under the city of Boise? Rumor has it there are tunnels leading to different buildings around downtown Boise like from the Egyptian to the Statehouse. Rumor also has it the Chinese made the tunnels.
- Troy H. via e-mail
The Downtown Boise of 2009 is a calm, cosmopolitan place - filled with fountains and public art and people working away in tall buildings.
But more than a century ago Boise was a rowdier, less orderly place. Before the town was populated with bank buildings and parking garages, downtown was home to small shanties and ramshackle businesses.
The area around the current Egyptian Theater was Boise's Chinatown. Longstanding rumor says that a network of tunnels stretches from that area throughout downtown, connecting small basement rooms and more. The tale says the tunnels were used to travel between opium dens and the outside world.
Fictional works in otherwise straight-ahead news publications have helped fuel the rumor over the decades.
A 1981 Idaho Statesman Halloween feature piece put reporter Tom Grote on a fictional quest to find the tunnels after an anonymous call.
"I looked down to see two large metal doors, one of four sets of doors built into the sidewalk around the Eastman Building that, I had been told, let only to the building's basement.
Before I could say anything, (a) man pushed me aside, picked up a crowbar he had laid nearby and began prying the doors open. The rusted hinges groaned loudly as he pulled one door open.
Grote's fabricated first person account went on to describe an active underground world, populated with Chinese men smoking opium and engaging in prostitution.
Grote, now the editor of the McCall Star-News said his 28-year-old story was written on a lark late at night. He teamed with the Statesman's illustrator for the Halloween feature - but he says the work was entirely of his imagination.
The Boise Weekly told a story in 2002 - but this time presented it as a government conspiracy to keep a wide-ranging network of abandoned tunnels secret. The paper had a fictional source - Mr. X - who had explored the area.
X confirmed that the passageways-though many sections are now barely navigable due to crumbling rock and low ceilings-run beneath the city center as far north as Fort Street, south to the Boise River, east to the Old Penitentiary and west to 18th Street. X believes there are at least five levels of tunnels, the deepest found in the geographic center of the city, directly beneath the fountain at The Grove.
(D)uring secret meetings disguised as "9-11 Security Planning Sessions" members of the governor's and mayor's staffs decided to keep the information from the public. Their aim was to circumnavigate federal laws regarding archeological sites uncovered during construction projects.
The Weekly piece was also fiction - placed in the April Fools Day edition of the paper.
Beyond fiction - is there any truth to the rumor? Even a small trench running from one building to another?
"I'm not supposed to tell you this, but we use them all the time," Boise Mayor's Offices Spokesperson Adam Park said jokingly.
Park said he's long heard of the legend - but the city has no record of anything resembling an underground city.
Historian Arthur Hart may be the closest thing to a de facto source.
"The short answer is, there never were any. It's a very powerful myth, but it's an urban tale."
Hart authored a book on Boise's Chinese community - Chinatown: Boise, Idaho 1870-1970. He's done extensive research and says he is often asked about the passageways - but after years of work Hart has found no proof they exist.
Hart talked to the late Fritz Hummel - who was the architect on the Egyptian Theater Project. Hummel helped construct the theater in mid-1920s - and told Hart he never saw any evidence of tunnels.
Hart says the topic even gets heated for some when he tells believers that it's all a myth
"People have gotten so furious I thought I would get into a fist fight! When I asked where they were, the story gets more and more vague," Hart said.
The only thing resembling a tunnel he found is a few canals used for washing laundry in the old Chinatown. The ditches were filled with slop water and covered with planks - but couldn't have been used for underground travel.
If you still want to take a trip underground downtown - you have a few options.
Tunnels connect several buildings in the Capitol Mall complex, including the Hall of Mirrors, the Len B. Jordan building and the Statehouse. Security, a cafeteria and other offices are in the mini-underground city.
Another series of downtown tunnels connect buildings on the St. Luke's Regional Medical Center campus. Spokesperson Ken Dey says the passageways are not for public use, but instead are used to transport patients around the various buildings and are used by utility crews.
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